Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Rather Choleric and Wholly Admirable Dean Swift

Hi, Everyone:

To get you guys back in the habit of reading poetry, I'm starting out with an easy, easy, easy one.

It is:

Swift's Epitaph
by William Butler Yeats

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

Jonathan Swift, known to the literati as Dean Swift (because he was dead of St. Patrick's) is buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. There's a plaque there expressing solemn approval in even more solemn Latin. So why did Yeats feel the need to write his own epitaph? To create a memorial that would honor the man's most important aspects (you'll notice it says not a word about his clerical honors), one that could be carried in a person's head and thus was infinitely portable, and one that would outlast the plaque, the grave, the cathedral, possibly even Dublin itself.

Swift is best remembered today as the author of Gulliver's Travels, possibly the greatest work of satire ever written. In his day, however, he was deeply embedded in politics. He was an angry, intemperate man -- think Howard Dean crossed with Bob Dole on a very bad day and you've got Dean Swift on a good one. But he chose sides well. Though he was English and regarded his position in Ireland as a kind of exile (he desperately wanted an important gig in England), he was one of the greatest defenders ever of the Irish people. This hurt him -- there's always a lot more reward for stroking the ego of those in power than for telling them they're wrong -- but he followed his conscience.

His single greatest moment was when, in response to exploitative English policies directed against the Irish people, he wrote "A Modest Proposal," in which, mimicking the reasonable and pious voice of those defending government policy, he suggested that the Irish should raise babies for their meat and sell them to their British overlords, in one stroke reducing overpopulation and providing the British with a tasty dish which their current policies suggested they would be in no way averse to consuming.

People are still shaking their heads over that one. And you can be sure it didn't help Swift's chances of getting a nice, cushy gig in London. He knew it, too.

So, really, he earned Yeats's admiration ten times over.

All best,


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